Balancing Work and Family Life in the Digital Era: A Golden Opportunity for Sub Saharan African Women

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has facilitated the adoption of work from home through the widespread implementation of digitalization. The shift in the work environment has changed the where, when and the way people work. This becomes particularly noteworthy when examining the work of African women. The social change process coupled with the rising cost of living in Sub-Saharan Africa has constrained women to engage themselves in income-generating activities, becoming co-providers like men. Yet, women face a significant challenge due to cultural expectations that endorse marriage, unpaid care responsibilities, and the burdens of childbearing and rearing, leading to 8 out of 10 women working in vulnerable jobs (1). In this context, considering digitalization in all sectors of activities will allow more flexible working arrangements across devices worldwide. Hence, innovative working time arrangements like those introduced during the COVID-19 crisis can improve work-life balance for women (2). Hence, this article examines how digitalization can resolve the conflict between work and family life with a focus on women. In this light, such exploration will help to highlight the necessity to reinvent work arrangements towards the full implication of women both inside and outside their homes and reduce gender inequalities. Hence, it addresses African women, employers, government, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and national and international institutions promoting women’s empowerment. The structure of the remaining sections in this article is as follows: an examination of work-family challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa, followed by an exploration of the role of digitalization in achieving a balance between work and family. The final section focuses on the impact of digitalization on work-family balance, with a specific emphasis on women in SSA. The article concludes with summarizing remarks.

Work-Family Life Challenges in Sub Saharan Africa

In traditional African societies, women used to work in homesteads and fields together with female children, while men were in gathering and hunting with the male children (3). There was a clear gendered division of labour between work inside and outside the house during that time. Nevertheless, with the global progression of social change, the dedication of women expanded as they increasingly found employment both outside and within the confines of their homes.

Like in other developing regions in the world, SSA women continue to lag in the transition to modern employment. According to the World Bank, in 2019, the labor force participation rate for women in SSA was 68%, compared to 76% for men (4). In addition, most women (70%) work in family enterprises and farms, in which they do not receive direct remuneration and pay (3). Also, the majority of SSA women entrepreneurs involved in family responsibilities see their generated income and willingness to expand their businesses reduced (5).

In this region, women are the ones who most of the time undertake the majority of household work, such as cooking, fetching water and firewood, cleaning, and parenting. But this hectic work is undervalued, unrecognized, and uncompensated by the labour market. Combining additional work is quite demanding on SSA women’s energy, time, health and resources. Apart from the normal working time of 40-45 hours per week, working women still must couple with household duties, in which they spend an additional 15 hours per week than men (3).

In established policies in SSA, women continue to engage themselves in unfavorable conditions that interfere with family obligations, despite their educational level, skill accumulation, age and cultural background. Now, it is the right time to reinvent the working world by incorporating digitalization which provides greater freedom of how, where, and when SSA women can work. Therefore, establishing the balance between work and family in the digital age has become a golden opportunity for these women.

The Role of Digitalization in Work-family Balance Among Women in SSA

Before the digital age, most work was done at a particular place outside the home. This work arrangement strictly kept workers most of the time separated from their private lives. The future of work seems to be deeply rooted in digitalization, offering greater flexibility in terms of how, where, and when work is conducted. This is because the key features in the future of work are flexibility, openness, and the ability to work in teams. In fact, studies have confirmed that there is a significant positive relationship between work-family life and the employee’s psychological well-being, engagement and attitudes (6), and thus good job performance (7). As recognized by the European Commission, work-family life balance improves women’s quality of life, reduces the gender gap in employment, and creates a more inclusive labour market (8).

The use of online communication, mobile devices and digitalization of working processes can allow work to fit better around family and home responsibilities. By dedicating an open working space in the house, mothers to be near their kids and help to return to office work through digitalization. For instance, using laptops, desktop computers, tablets, and smartphones to work at home premises can increase work time autonomy, reduce commuting times, and better productivity (9). Chopra evidenced that teleworking mothers did not reduce their working hours after childbirth (10). This work arrangement can help married women and mothers in SSA not to experience work rupture and the difficult transition that they faced when they enter family formation.

Digitalization reshapes the traditional working environment and lifestyle by overcoming conventional barriers imposed by time and place. It empowers women to choose work arrangements that suit them. This work arrangement can enable a woman to schedule her work in late hours of the night, during the day, or early hours of the day when the environment is convenient for her.

Finally, digitalization reconciles family and work for parents and contributes to the achievement of equality between men and women (11). Most employers are reluctant in hiring women, especially married women and mothers, not only because of their low skills and limited access to training facilities, but also because of their intensive engagement in unpaid care work. In this perspective, because digital connectivity is fast growing in SSA since 2000s, this region must take advantage of this golden opportunity provided by digitalization in balancing work and family for women.

Dr. Adeline Nembot
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Dr. Adeline M. Nembot is an economic policy analyst in the Economic Affairs Division at the Nkafu Policy Institute. She holds a PhD in Labour and Development Economics from the Collaborative PhD Program (CPP), obtained under the auspices of the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC), a highly selective scholarship program for the best students from African universities.

Dr. Meli Yollande Tankeu
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Dr. Yollande Longang Tankeu is an Economic Policy Analyst at the Economic Affairs division of the Nkafu Policy Institute. She holds a PhD in Public Economics from the University of Dschang and a Master’s degree in Public Economics and Human Resources. Prior to joining the Nkafu Policy Institute, she was an assistant consultant at the Ministry of Public Health of Cameroon. She has also been an associate lecturer in several higher education institutions in Cameroon.

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